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Can we just keep doing virtual church? (Part 2)

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In “Part 1” of my answer, I explored what it means for a church to be a church. A “physical gathering” isn't incidental to being church, it’s part of its essence. The second reason we should resist permanently doing “virtual church” is that it inherently promotes a design for the Christian life that undermines God’s vision for the church.

Consumer Christianity Undermines God's Vision for the Church

I think it’s safe to say we live in a consumer-driven culture. The driving force behind a consumer culture is the idea that the consumer knows best. Businesses and organizations, then, are on a mission to figure out what the consumer wants, and they provide it in order to make a profit. In some arenas of life, that works perfectly fine. But when consumerism begins to permeate the way we form relationships and communities, it undermines the very thing it’s trying to form. More and more, our relationships (e.g. marriage) are seen as “transactional” rather than “covenantal.” Meaning, the driving force behind our commitment to the relationship is what “profit” the relationship is bringing to me. In a transactional relationship, when the partner or community isn’t meeting my needs, I cut my losses and find a new one.

What does this have to do with the church? In a consumer culture, people are naturally inclined to view the church as a spiritual shopping mall rather than a spiritual family. And that fundamentally changes the rules of engagement. You’ll want your church to look slick, offer an array of self-help programs, offer many services that fit around your schedule, bring people together that look, act, and think like you. And if the church doesn’t deliver, you’ll find another one. 

Writer Brett McCracken, in his recent book Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community, offers several indicators of consumer culture showing up in our own hearts and churches.

  1. We go to church to be served, not to serve.
  2. The comfort of being anonymous
  3. The comfort of staying at home
  4. The comfort of the novel (i.e. an infatuation with following the latest trends)
  5. The comfort of preferred worship style
  6. The comfort of homogeneity (i.e. a desire to associate with people who look, think, and act like us)

What’s so dangerous about consumer Christianity? Well, it’s a whole-sale assault on the true nature of Christianity. At the center of the Christian faith is a cross. The self-sacrifice of Christ is to be the model, the paradigm, for the Christian life.  The servant-leadership of Christ is to be the ethos of our communal life. As Christians, we recognize that our natural desires can’t be the determining factor or driving force behind what we do as a church because it is our natural desires that need to be transformed and renewed. In fact, God has given us the church to renew our desires through the preaching of God’s Word, the organic discipleship of the church, and partaking of the Lord’s table together. 

Can you recognize how “virtual church” appeals to a consumer-driven approach to church? Read through Brett McCracken’s indicators of consumer Christianity once again. A digital church asks you to sit back and relax rather than serve. A digital church allows you to “have Christianity” while remaining totally anonymous. A digital church doesn’t ask you to leave home. “Digital church” appeals to your desire for novelty (for now). Doing church at home allows you to customize your worship experience in whatever way you desire. And best of all, you don’t have to talk to people you don’t like or who don’t think like you. It makes you the arbiter of your church experience. But it also robs you of human interaction, service, the opportunity for self-denial and self-sacrifice. It robs you of the personal comforts and confrontations that might bring you growth in Christ. Even more, it robs everyone else of your presence, love, service, encouragements, and gifts.

If you want to see God’s vision for the local church, read 1 Corinthians 12. The church is like a body with many, diverse parts. The health of the whole body is dependent upon the gifts, abilities, and embodied presence of not only the “strong parts” but also the weakest, seemingly insignificant parts. The church displays Jesus through its differences. And that means that your Christian growth is designed to take place not in your ability to customize your worship experience, but in a real, embodied community of sinner–saints who share responsibility in seeing your faith endure to the end.

I write this to you, Godspeed, because Satan often works in subtle ways.  Yes, I’m so glad we can livesteam worship songs and sermons. I’m so grateful for the technology that allows us to host worship “meetings” where I can see tiny boxes filled with your faces! But I don’t want us to think that these are legitimate substitutes for the physical gathering. We’re living through unprecedented circumstances, but God’s vision for the church hasn’t changed. My hope and prayer is that this “exile” of sorts would not cause us to re-invent God’s vision for the church, but cause us to earnestly long-for the gathered church once again.